Free bluegrass concerts part of class curriculum

By Rebecca Watters

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In a normal lecture class, students often sit beneath fluorescent lights at metal desks and dread the ensuing period, where the only sounds they hear are the scratching of pencils and the professor’s voice — however, the setting is much different in professor Ron Pen’s Friday music classes.

Pen’s students attend a concert, where Pen invites musicians from around the nation to play traditional music from Kentucky — Appalachia-style music that is part of the Bluegrass State’s long and industrious musical heritage. He said seeing the performance means more to students than listening to him talk about it.

“The music is a window into the culture,” Pen said. “I think of this as sort of like the lab portion to my lecture.”

The concerts are free and open to anyone. Pen said by allowing anyone to attend, he hopes to bridge the gap between campus and the surrounding Lexington communities.

“I like breaking down those walls. Oftentimes, I have people who attend the concerts every week, and it’s like a family reunion on Fridays,” Pen said.

Pen said he hopes each concert teaches the audience something about Kentucky culture. Appalachian music comes from the Appalachian mountain region, and the the lyrics often include stories about Appalachian life.

“The music is the way of life,” Pen said. “It was hand-fashioned in Appalachia, much like a quilt or a cornbread recipe that is passed down through generations.”

The performances range from duets to large string bands. The musicians are often Pen’s former students, and sometimes they may be well-known  in Kentucky or elsewhere.

“I (recently) had a duet performance — the man was actually a former student of mine, and he was performing with his wife that I had introduced him to,” Pen said.

Pen said he has a close relationship with Jean Ritchie, an Appalachian music star and a UK graduate. Pen and Ritchie first met at the Hindman Settlement School when they were young, and they remained close friends throughout their life.

Ritchie was an award-winning musician who toured the nation playing traditional Kentucky music. Upon her death earlier this summer, Pen was given her dulcimer, which is on display outside the Niles Gallery in the Lucille Caudill Little Fine Arts Library.

“I became practically family with her — I remember how she was always singing,” Pen said. “Even when we were doing dishes, she would be humming something.”

The next concert will feature Cari and Mike Norris, and will be Sept. 25 in the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at 12:00 p.m.